Nelson Mandela’s ‘I Am Prepared To Die’ speech fifty years on

By Awol Allo

April 20, 2014, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s speech from the dock at Rivonia. What is the legacy of that trial? What does it mean for South Africans and for all those who struggle today?

1964, Mandela sentenced to life for that joke called sabotaging a pernicious racist state.



April 20, 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s ‘I am prepared to die’ speech. On this day, fifty years ago, a black man stood in a white man’s court, a court that did not acknowledge or recognise his claims to a life of meaning and purpose, to deliver a robust, uniquely transformative critique of violence and injustice. In this address, Mandela used words and phrases capable of re-inventing the political universe: touchstone phrases that resist what Apartheid affirms; reveal what it hides; and amplify what it silences. No one thought this encounter between a black man and a white man’s court could lay the foundations not only for a radical possibility but also for a new way of life in South Africa.

The government carefully choreographed the trial to generate certain lessons: to discredit and delegitimize the liberation movement and its political ideologies in the eyes of white South Africans and the international community. The prosecution did everything at its disposal to depict the defendants as terrorist-communists, asking for the death penalty. Led by the legendary Afrikaans lawyer, Bram Fischer, however, the accused became accusers, as George Bizos once noted, putting Apartheid itself on trial.

With incredible powers of precision and foresight, Nelson Mandela spelled out the political, legal, and ethical crisis that permitted a racist social order to judge and punish those fighting for a free and democratic society. Standing in a space that embodies this racist power, a hegemonic space that rationalizes, affirms and secures white culture and its value system, Mandela found words to register the grievances and injustices that the hegemonic language of law is incapable of hearing or representing. Using prophetic languages that belong to many ages, Mandela appealed to the voices of reason, to the ‘deepest conscience of humanity,’ giving meaning and purpose to millions of lives deprived of their just place in the world.

In all his three trials – the Treason Trial, the Incitement Trial, and the Rivonia Trial – we find trenchant criticisms of legal domination; reflective criticisms that appeal to the law beyond legality, and to a universal justice beyond Apartheid’s justice. In these trials, we find strategic knowledge of law and the legal discourse crucial for opening up space for critique and resistance. There are touchstone phrases that generate and present compelling stories – stories that transcend time and space and reflect the human condition.

‘I am a black man in a white man’s court’

In his 1962 incitement trial, Mandela told the Apartheid court that he was a ‘black man in a white man’s court.’ Through a meticulous excavation of the contradictions internal to Apartheid’s legal order, Mandela exposed the dirty linen underneath Apartheid’s grandiose façade of legality.

Mandela the lawyer was so articulate that even the judge appointed to secure the system could not resist the appealing power of his speech and did not silence him. Indeed, it was in this trial that the judge was compelled to concede the colour of Apartheid justice: ‘There is only one court today and that is a white man’s court.’

In the courtroom, he is calm, yielding and respectful. Using this space as a political platform, a site of visibility and voice, he poses ethico-legal conundrums that cannot be ignored nor absorbed without exposing the inherent contradictions of the system. He says, ‘Broadly speaking, Africans and whites in this country have no common standard of fairness, morality, and ethics . . . In their relationship with us, South African whites regard it as fair to pursue policies which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”

This appeal to ethics and morality, to reason and conscience, or to the law of laws or the justice to come is a common thread that runs through all his trials. It is a testament to his belief in the transformative power of arguments and stories in struggles for visibility and audibility.

‘I am prepared to die’ – from the dock at Pretoria

The Rivonia Trial is a momentous legal event rightly recognized as ‘the trial that changed South Africa.’ One of the most momentous legal events of the twentieth century, the historical significance of the Rivonia Trial is recognizedby UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. Mandela saw the trial as a transformative opportunity that offered him visibility and a hearing, a space from which to spread stories of such significance and consequence that eventually they would change South Africa.

In a concise account of the political programme of the ANC, a statement that served as a framework of meaning for the defense, Mandela made fundamental constitutional claims that Apartheid can neither absorb nor explain within its logic of representation. It was a distinctive kind of claim that proclaims certain values; a speech act that made a specific demand on the world it speaks about. Presenting himself as the accuser, Mandela stages a discursive affirmation of the acts and motives of the accused. As James Boyd White notes, these were ‘acts of hope’ that reconstituted a new republic and redefined black subjectivity as resistant and defiant.

An appealing paradox runs throughout the Rivonia speech: it is a speech that is at once transgressive and transformative. It is an act of self-definition that at once claims and resists authority. It affirms disobedience and justifies it as a mark of the highest respect for Law. Speaking as a man of the law who belongs to a tradition respectful of law, Mandela defends law-breaking as the necessary condition under which true law can renew its promise of justice and redeem the dignity and humanity of blacks in South Africa.

Such reflections illuminated the structures and analytic categories power deploys to dissimulate the shock of daily violence. They cast a light on the submerged violence of dispossession and exclusion; returning it to an arena of visibility where laws and court processes lose their disguise as neutral and apolitical. Most importantly, they unlocked inaccessible meanings, activated reason, and enabled understanding.

But ‘the black pimpernel’, as Mandela was sometimes referred to, was not the depoliticized saintly figure recent media coverage seems to suggest. He was a freedom fighter; the great liberator who embodies the ‘ideal of a democratic and free society.’ Freedom and democracy are the ideals he hoped to achieve and live by, ‘but if needs be, it [was] an ideal for which [he was] prepared to die.’ This, then, is not an innocent apolitical figure but a revolutionary who demonstrated how non-violence, as a principle for liberation, reaches its limits.


Mandela the lawyer leaves behind an immense legacy to disciples of the cause in Africa. A sharp litigator by training who knew the nuts-and-bolts of legal practice, Mandela turned his trial from a moment of resistance into an appeal to humanity, to address the universal justice that ‘resides in the deepest conscience of humanity.’ It is this appeal to the “unfailing sentiment of justice”, to the conscience of ordinary men and women, which laid the foundation for the worldwide movement that led to the demise of that pernicious regime. Those who live under conditions of oppression and inequality must take Mandela’s ‘living speech’ seriously. In his laws of reflection and the light it reflects, one finds a timeless lesson.

Fifty years on, Rivonia and Liliesleaf Farm, the Johannesburg suburb where the accused were arrested while planning a transition from the old ANC tradition of non-violence to active resistance, is now recognized as a ‘place of liberation’ and houses a state-of-the-art resource centre. As Dennis Goldberg put it, ‘Rivonia, Liliesleaf Farm, is an icon of that struggle for freedom.’ The event of the trial, the performance of resistance and repression by the trial actors, is a cultural artifact that will be commemorated as an event ‘that changed South Africa.’ But fifty years after that momentous event, and twenty years into democracy, South Africa is struggling to realize the ideals that underpinned its long walk to freedom and justice.

Farewell, Madiba!


‘Are you Oromo First or Ethiopian First?’

By Awol Allo

That was the question put to Jawar Mohamed by Al Jazeera’s The Stream co-host Femi Oki. Jawar’s response—‘I am an Oromo first’, and that ‘Ethiopia is imposed on me’—raised a political tsunami that provides us with a unique and revealing insight into the moral parochialism and ethical deadlock that pervades our political imagination. Many moved too quick and jumped too fast- seeking to obliterate the political stature of the man they lauded as ‘progressive’ and ‘visionary’ not long ago. Their love affair with Jawar came to a sudden halt with his declaration of loyalty to his ethnic subjectivity, as opposed to his Ethiopian subjectivity. Their objection is not merely against Jawar’s specific claims but on the overall question of why the ‘Oromo’ question, and why at this time.

As I tried to understand the modes of reasoning, forms of rationality and kinds of logic that permeated the political earthquake that followed, I am reminded of my own politics of location. How should I interpret these multi-polar exchanges that seem to traverse the spheres of politics, affect, thought and reflection? How can I avoid playing into the existing political fault lines- the politically disarming essentialism of Ethiopiawinet and the hyper-coding of ethno-nationalism? I have no answer to these questions except to say that there is no position of neutrality, an outside from which one can speak an objective truth in any discussion of issues so fraught with contingencies and complexities. In what follows, I will only address the debate that pertains to this specific question of what one is in and of himself and how that question is deeply tied to power, force, and right.

Let me begin with the notion of Ethiopiawinet—a master-signifier central to the political storm. What does it signify and how did it come to have the kind of political reality that it has? Allow me to take a bit of a detour here to establish my point. In his ‘history of the present’, Michel Foucault says this about history: “history had never been anything more than the history of power as told by power itself, or the history of power that power had made people tell: it was the history of power, as recounted by power.” History as an index of power, and as an operator and reinvigoration of the hegemony of a particular group! I think those who met Jawar’s response with such utter surprise and outrage are those dazzled by this magical function of history. This history weaves the heterogeneity, indefiniteness, and complexity of the country’s past into a coherent narration. Key events and moments in the nation’s history—stories of origin, war, victory, conquest, occupation, pillage, dispossessions, marginalization, etc—becomes discursive formations tied to power, force, and law. These dissymmetries were coded and inscribed into juridical codes, laws, and institutions- providing Ethiopiawinet the kind of truth that it now has.

Disregarding the vulgarity that has been so ubiquitous, even the most sophisticated of replies take a similar and predictable pattern: Ethiopiawinet is a kind of reality with a deeper meaning and therefore goes without saying. In a short genealogical excavation of Ethiopia’s essentialist historiography, Semir Yusuf offers a trenchant critique of the mainstream history of modern Ethiopia. He provides an interesting insight not into the truth of history but the formation of truths and the system of meaning they constitute and circulate.  They overlook the ritual inherent to that concept, the deployments made of it, the reappropriation to which it is subject, the erasures it inflicts, and the claims it seals and keeps inaccessible. I suggest that we conceive Ethiopia as a creation of a grand historical narrative and Ethiopiawinet as an ideology. Ethiopia, like the United States, Great Britain, France, Kenya, or any nation for that matter, has crafted beautiful lies of its own aimed at creating a ‘historical knowledge’ that serves as a weapon of power. Ethiopiawinet, like American-ness, British-ness, Scottish-ness, and Oromumma is an ideological construct. Both as an imaginary and symbolic form, it has no preemptory force that gives   claim to truth and rationality.

In Ethiopia, however, historical knowledge was installed in a rather invasive way, in a totalized and totalizing way, eliminating every form of counter-narrative from circulating in the social body. Because of this exclusive access to narrative production, Ethiopiawinet has come to inscribe itself not only in the ‘nervous system’ of its subjects but also in the temperament, making people believe that there is a hidden truth to this beautiful lies and myths. As a result, Ethiopiawinet became a ‘master signifier’, as psychoanalysts would say, and came to signify something pure and superior.  For those who embraced the category without questioning its constitutive logic, it is a fixed, stable, and preemptory category that signifies something divine and adulterated. It is perceived as something absolute, eternal, and immutable, an ontological form that has its own intrinsic reality. I think it is precisely this ontologization of an ideological category that explains the fury of Ethiopianists. They don’t recognize that the truth of Ethiopiawinet is a making of our own, that is not independent of social system and power relations. In their refusal to recognize the right of an Oromo to give an account of himself in his own terms and the unassailable sense of correctness that accompanies this refusal explains just how embedded and symbolic this ideology is.

For others, it is a depoliticizing category that mutes differing articulations of identity, commits historical injustice, and conceals the battle cries that can be heard beneath the rhetoric of national unity. By muting an expression of loyalty with the subject positions that power uses but deliberately and systematically misrecognizes, the dominant articulation of Ethiopiawinet depoliticizes other identity categories. By depoliticizing it, it silently erases the injustices it perpetrated against these subjectivities. By refusing to embrace this type of Ethiopiawinet, by proclaiming his loyalty to Oromumma, Jawar is attacking the hinge that connects ‘historical knowledge’ of Ethiopiawinet to power. It is not a denial of his Ethiopian identity but a displacement, and an attack on an exclusionary conception of Ethiopiawinet that is deployed as a weapon in political struggles, and one that does not recognize the right of people to be called by a name of their choosing. If there is any right of people, it is the right to be called and identified with the name they want. The refusal of Ethiopianists to recognize the voices of others reveals a play of power at work in every invocation of this concept.

 The Personal is the Political

True, every nation weaves together its own necessary myths to keep the social fabric and its ideological edifice together. But these ritualized myths that glorify the uninterrupted and untarnished glory of the nation should not annihilate the political agency of those who occupy this subject position. Oromumma is not a necessary biological category. It is a political category. It is a subject position and an identity category. Those who embody the material and lived experience of being an Oromo are political subjectivities with unique and different experience of their own. They were treated with contempt and indifference because they spoke their language. Their dignity and humanity has been reduced because they asserted their identity. For those who endured the every day gestures of humiliation and coded dehumanization, the personal is the political. They become subjects of resistance when their identity is frustrated, demeaned, when my identity, so to speak, fails as a result of a wider systemic failures. It is when the individual links his failure with systemic failure, his with the universal, rather than the personal inadequacy; that the stranger in him emerges. This is precisely what Jawar meant when he said, ‘because we are forced to denounce our identity, we ended up reaffirming and reasserting our identity’.

The words of Steve Biko are poignant reminders: When Steve Biko says, “Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being”, he is trying to politicize blackness. He is trying to destabilize the naturalized nexus between blackness and subservience. Those whose sense of worth questioned, whose dignity squashed, and humanity contested because of their subjectivity will have a different narrative of who we are as a society. Surely, the rage in Jawar’s head, the fire in his belly and the energy with which he sought to reassert his dignity and worth as an equal speaking being represents a redemptive quest for the recognition of his subjectivity and his claims as a discourse worthy of voice and visibility.

In politics, what is not said is more important than what is said in public. I personally do not need a lecture by a mathematician or for that matter a historian that these things happen in Ethiopia. I do not need anyone to tell me that they never occurred. I have seen people argue in meetings that other languages should not be spoken in public places such as universities. I have seen students in academic institution frown upon students who chose to speak in Afan Oromo; I have heard religious figures claim that it is a curse to preach in Afan Oromo. I have seen people pause with astonishment when someone fails to fit their caricatured image of an Ethiopian. And we have all seen the hostile turn around in Taxis whenever a different language other than Amharic is spoken. I know many of you will dismiss this as ‘inferiority complex’—but these are the embodied experiences of a subject that no ideology or vilification can displace. What was evident from the events of the last few weeks was that the hubris of Ethiopiawinet does not and cannot recognize other subject positions unless they speak from within its discourses and frameworks. Whatever the latter says, the former hears it as a noise, not as discourse.

Hegemony is a form of political theology. The hegemonic groups see his hegemonic position as a bestowment. They demand that the oppressed and excluded makes use of the very vocabularies, analytic categories, archives, histories, discourses and standards used by the oppressor when articulating their grievances. It demands that the oppressed and the excluded renounce its claims to past injustices for a reconciled future without saying the terms of that reconciliation. That kind of Ethiopiawinet can no longer go without saying. We need a new beginning, a new concept of Ethiopiawinet that embodies and celebrates diversity and listens to all its voices. We need an Ethiopia of all its people can walk tall assured of its dignity and worth. This subconscious hegemony that compels us from within to squash the dignity of those who refuse to use a partisan and exclusionary discourse is no way to get to that free and democratic Ethiopia.

The “Politics” in Ethiopia’s Political Trials: Can the Ethiopian Government Escape Conviction if prosecuted under the same Charge it Invokes Against its Foes?


By Awol Allo

The Ethiopian regime is using the legal system to eliminate dissident voices and drag protesters to court under terrorism charges. Far from guaranteeing equality and justice, the country’s courts serve as an instrument in the Government’s hands to legitimize persecution of political adversaries while justifying its practices to the west.


The deployment of laws and the devices of justice for oppressive political projects are as old as antiquity. From Socrates to Jesus of Nazareth, from Joan of Arc to Susanne Anthony, from Nelson Mandela to Ethiopia’s own Burtukan Midaksa and Eskindir Nega, the site of the courtroom has been used to intimidate, harass, silence, exile, and eliminate political foes perceived to be a threat to the authorities of the day. The phenomenon we sometimes identify as ‘the political trial’ is neither exclusively eastern nor western, autocratic or democratic. In both democratic and autocratic states, courts adjudicate conflicts irreducibly political or ideological in their nature. We could argue whether it is ever justified to use the court system to get rid of ‘the politically obnoxious’, but the fact remains that the judicial apparatus is inevitably one of the most irresistible sites of power-struggle.

Writing at the height of the Cold War, and arguing contra a legal ideology often called liberal legalism, Judith N. Shklar exposes legalism’s wilful blindness to domination and exclusion.  While she recognizes legalism’s ‘greatest contribution’ to a “decent political order”, she accuses liberalism’s ‘formal justice’ for its silence towards laws that persecute. The principle of legality for which liberalism congratulates itself “enforces persecutive laws as readily as any other kind”.[1] In Apartheid South Africa, the principle of legality provided a legitimizing logic that allowed the judicial apparatus to enforce racial inequality in the name of legality and formal justice. From these observations, Shklar concludes that the relevant question in the adjudication of political conflicts is not whether the trial is ‘legal’ or ‘political’, but the form of politics pursued through those trials.[2] One may disagree with Shklar’s generalization, but what is instructive about her conception of the political trial is the emphasis on the nature of politics pursued through the trial—whether it is emancipatory and transformative politics or oppressive. It is precisely in this sense that I wanted to explore the “politics’ in Ethiopia’s recent political trials.

The last two decades have witnessed the deployment of the legal framework, including foundational documents establishing Ethiopian sovereignty, as strategic tool against regime adversaries. In his definitive scholarship on political trials, “Political Justice: the Use of Legal Procedures for Political Ends”, the Frankfurt jurist Otto Kirchheimer describes ‘the classic political trial’ as “a regime’s attempt to incriminate its foe’s public behaviour with a view to evicting him from the political scene”.[3]  Given the vagaries of the medium and its vulnerability to subversive resistance, it is fitting to ask why Ethiopia, a country with an exclusive monopoly over the means of narrative production, from mass media to pretty much every other conceivable ‘stock-in-trade of politics’, turned to its institutions of justice to pursue a project that is the antithesis of truth and justice?

The trial and the animating logic of legal truth

Trials are one of the oldest and most legalistic institutions of law. While the institution of the trial pre-existed the Enlightenment, their normative recognition as a site of truth and justice goes back to the rise of Enlightenment epistemology and Weberian legal rationality. Since the onset of the 20th century, the trial is broadly recognized as a communicative forum of truth-searching governed by rational legal rules both within adversarial and inquisitorial systems. The communicative logic that structures the medium of the trial requires a strict observance of canonical set of rules necessary for the excavation of objective truth; a truth indispensable for the determination of guilt and innocence in the administration of criminal justice.

For any trial to retain its name as a trial—to retain its normative legitimacy as a forum of truth—there must be an irreducible risk of conviction or acquittal to the defendant and the prosecution respectively. That makes the trial what it is.  If the outcome of the trial is predetermined, if the irreducible element of risk—either of acquittal or conviction—is eliminated, the trial is not a ‘trial’ in the proper sense of the word, but an authentic political event, a theatre of repression reminiscent of the Stalinist show trials. This is the first sense in which trials can be ‘political’. And most of Ethiopia’s political trials belong to this category, a ‘stage show’ specifically calibrated to serve a specific pedagogic end.

There is, however, a different logic that makes the moment of the trial the most productive political instrument in struggles over power. As a communicative space governed by the logic of deliberative rationality, trials have built-in mechanisms that allow them to resist and escape the confines of this rationality. They have an irreducible linguistic and discursive reflexivity that allows their politicization. In “Democracy in America”, Alexis De Tocqueville brilliantly captures the performative features of the courtroom, that make the political appropriation of its space irresistible. He writes: “It is a strange thing what authority the opinion of mankind generally grants to the intervention of courts. It clings even to the mere appearance of justice long after the substance has evaporated; it lends bodily form to the shadow of the law.” Courts have this ‘vastly superior’ power of truth production and image creation. Because the courtroom is normatively understood as an independent, neutral, and impartial institution of justice elevated above and beyond the expedience of politics, it is sufficient that a defendant ‘had his day in court’ irrespective of what goes on behind the cloak of legality. For a regime interested in satisfying western curiosity rather than justifying its action to its own people, legal procedures have the incomparable advantage of elevating political struggles into an authoritative, neutral and impartial process. This is emblematic of the situation in Ethiopia.

The invocation of the lexicon of law and justice in the ritual space of the courtroom obscures and conceals the politics at the core of the trial. As De Tocqueville says, even when the violence that goes in the name of the rule of law and justice is revealed without its mask, “the mere appearance of justice” continues to provide a semblance of legality and justice for the spectacles of domination. When Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, following the arrest of opposition leaders post 2005 election promised the west that the accused ‘will have their day in court’, Zenawi was aware of the truth-effects that the metaphor and the spectacle generate. He knew that liberal legalists would not distinguish between the procedure used and the objective sought, and that they would argue that if, “They had their day in Court, they were not really persecuted”. Indeed, if we take this logic seriously, if we look at aspects of contestation in the courtroom that function on the borderline of what is said and what is meant, the strategic and tactical move made on both sides of the divide is a less deliberative and more performative enterprise. In part, it is this performative quality, this ‘vastly superior’ image-creating power, that accounts for Ethiopia’s resort to its courts as a weapon of domination.

The trials of the developmental state

This is both the logic and the rationality that animates not only Ethiopia’s terrorism trials of the last three years, but also many of its major political trials. In the name of the ‘developmental state’, the system has transformed its courts into another security apparatus whose job is not to second-guess the government, but simply to rubberstamp decisions made somewhere else. Ethiopian courts are not guarantors of the reign of equality and justice; they are the very instruments used to secure inequality and injustice. They are legal technologies of repression whose strategic function is to rationalize, justify and legitimize the repressive logic behind these persecutive law proceedings by situating them within the framework of law and justice. Instead of laying the foundation for a just, inclusive, and democratic society, the current government has chosen to use the law and institutions of justice to annihilate the very juridical conditions necessary to cultivate those values.

By orchestrating authentic political events under a false façade of legality, the courts use their formal ‘legitimacy’ to authenticate the narratives of government as they dispose of elements hostile to the regime and vindicate the political order. They do this in several high profile trials, ranging from the Red Terror Trials (against members of the military dictatorship) to the recent conviction of journalists and opposition party members, and the ongoing case against leaders of the protest movement calling for an end to what they see as an unlawful government interference in their religion.

If the Red Terror Trials were meant to create a clean break with that nefarious past, foregrounding the foundation of the new Ethiopia in the ideals of accountability and justice, the EPRDF government has failed and failed utterly in drawing a clear line between the moral failings of the past and its own promised ‘virtues’ of the present. If you look at the system in action, with its ins and outs, with the choices it makes and the exceptions it allows, you will notice that its practices are the precise negation of every normative proposition it espouses, including the constitutional premises upon which everything else rests. But why invoke terrorism against people who may be as far as one can be from an act of terror?

In the name of truth and justice

In recent years, Ethiopia found a convenient validation for its practices in the post 9/11 reordering of global legality. The same nations that exported Enlightenment epistemologies to Africa—everything we know as Africans about juridical conceptions of the rule of law, freedom and justice—are now exporting a different logic and political rationality that dislodges those values in the name of ‘counter-terrorism operations’. The same Enlightenment that gave us (shall I say imposed on us?) the language of equality, freedom and justice is now being used to justify the suppression of struggles for freedom and justice.

To align its own struggle against domestic dissidents and political movements that it deemed ‘terrorists’ with the ‘global war on terror’ [Preamble, Ethiopian Anti-terrorism Proclamation], Ethiopia began to appropriate the legal and political rationalities of the west, to transfer its essential technologies, and to secure its own space from which to defend and justify its policies at home. By being a part of the new “framework for conceptualizing global violence”, it participates in the formulation and reformulation of the discourse, using western rationalities to name and describe the violence of certain groups as illegitimate, while encoding its far more pervasive violence into laws and institutions to justify it and render it acceptable.

In the post 9/11 world order, nothing performs the spectacles of oppression Ethiopia sought to orchestrate better than the eventalizing discourse of terrorism. Ethiopia’s transition from explicitly repressive criminal legislations to the performative label of terrorism allowed the regime to encase its practices within the signifying practices and rationalities of the West. A highly convenient category, and not specifically Ethiopian, terrorism justifies the invocation of ‘national security’ against individuals and groups that struggle and resist the repressive practices of the government. It is a category that forms domains of truth capable of enunciating the accused and their causes as extremist, violent and ultimately terrorist. Once a political adversary is then transformed into a ‘threat’ to the very cohesion of a population or a nation. That alone is sufficient to justify its elimination from the political sphere. In a system where the functional differentiation between law and politics, guilt and innocence, law and fact are dislocated, the mere labelling of the movement leaders as “terrorist” is sufficient to exclude them from the category of the human and therefore deny them the benefit of the law.

For the regime then, hailing its own ‘terrorists’ as such, serves, in one and the same move, four distinct politically productive purposes: (1) It transforms the ‘political adversary’ so named into a ‘threat’ to the entire population of the state, if not of the world; (2) It delegitimizes the cause(s) of individuals and groups so ‘designated’; (3) It rationalizes, justifies, and legitimizes the violence used against the ‘terrorist’; (4) Finally, it strikes a silent political pact with western powers for a diplomatic shield to its practices. This, however, is a very risk intensive adventure. There is no guarantee that the use of the legal system for oppressive political ends generates and crystallizes the power effect expected by any party.

From “the case against Eskinder Nega and 23 others” to the ongoing “case against the 29 defendants”

Since its Anti-terrorism law began to function as a weapon synchronizing political action with the discourse of truth and justice, we have seen courts as the key strategic tools used to harass and eliminate regime adversaries from the political sphere in this way. But the recent trend is quite alarming. In the last four months, the Ethiopian High Court convicted and sentenced several prominent journalists, opposition party leaders and activists under its sweeping anti-terrorism law. In another high profile terrorism case against 29 Ethiopians, the government is staging a sensational show to redefine not only the terms of engagement between friends and foes but also the limits of tolerable dissent. But does all this succeed in eliminating regime adversaries or in creating the image Ethiopia wanted to create ? Whatever their political goal, neither Ethiopia nor its victims of political justice can control the political effects of these trials—no one has the monopoly over the ultimate impact of these trials.

When law is called upon to eliminate political adversaries, trials degenerate, threatening to expose or unmask not only the instrumental function of the law and the court process, but also the nature of power politics in Ethiopia, making the invisible visible, in ‘all its brutality and secrecy’.

These trials are touchstones in new and different ways. They represent those rare moments in the life of a body politic when public authority reveals its true essence. In calling its adversaries to judgement, it exposes itself to the judgment of the very public in whose name it exercises the right/authority to judge. To condemn men of exemplary sacrifice and moral imperative under the guise of law and order, only generates more embarrassment and irredeemable moral failure. As Aung San Suu Kyi noted: “The root of a nation’s misfortunes has to be sought in the moral failings of the government.” I am not suggesting that all victims of political justice in Ethiopia had no case to answer. Not at all! The point is this: when the judicial machinery is activated against a political foe, the indictment is simply a cover-up, a smokescreen, for behind the scene political struggles.

If ‘law and public order’ constitute the epicentre of criminal justice, its centre of gravity, history reminds us of the double inscription of this discourse. In the trials of John Lilburn, Nelson Mandela, Daniel Berrigan, the Rosenberg Brothers, Susan Anthony, Birtukn Midaksa, Eskindir Nega and the current case against the 29 Ethiopians, we see a tension between at least two conceptions of both law and order. Whatever the implications of each position, these trials demonstrate the double-movement at work in the invocation of the discourse of law and order and its historical susceptibility to various interpretations. In many of these trials, we have the most complete clarification of the violence represented by conceptions of ‘law and order’; a clarification that demonstrated that these defendants had a more responsible and just understanding of law and order than their prosecutors.

The story of Nelson Mandela from the dock at Pretoria (1956-60) and Rivonia(1963-64) is the most paradigmatic case. For Nelson Mandela and the ANC, true ‘law and order’ aspires at notions of justice and freedom, dignity and equal opportunity for all. Law and order retains its legitimacy only when it pursues ideals that Mandela famously articulated as a “free and democratic society” for which he was “prepared to die.” But Apartheid sees the resistance of the ANC as disruptive to the constituted ‘law and order’ regardless of the ‘racial inequality’ the order is designed to enforce. While there is no symmetry between Ethiopia today and Apartheid South Africa, the logic that animates the deployment of the legal system against the political foes is one and the same. For those dragged before Ethiopia’s courts in the name of law and order, a just ‘law and order’ resides in something beyond itself, in its legitimacy, responsibility and justice.

As a ritual moment, these trials embody a historicity that transcends itself both in time and space. It was Hannah Arendt who reminded us of this ‘condensed historicity’ when she characterized the Dreyfus trial as “a fore-gleam of the twentieth century”.[6] Just as one cannot write a complete history of Apartheid or Israeli Occupation of Palestinian lands or the history of the United States of America without an account of how the judicial system sustained these practices, rationalizing and justifying Apartheid, occupation and slavery, respectively, one cannot begin to articulate the history of the last two decades in Ethiopia without accounting for the strategic role assigned to the legal system and its courts. The mass trials of members of the CUD post 2005 election, the second arrest and imprisonment of Burtukan Midaksa, the terrorism trials of several Oromo political leaders and activists and others touched the fabric of Ethiopians and will help the public to navigate through the dense irony of law, politics and history.


Our understanding of these trials is critical for conceptualizing and articulating a new political universe, a new political subjectivity and a new standard of justice, one that is inclusive and reflexive but always attentive to its pedagogic imperative: the recognition and acknowledgement of past injustices, conquests and longstanding resentments.

In the end, if there is anything didactic about Ethiopia’s blasphemous spectacles of justice, it is the power-rationalizing and order-legitimizing function of its courts, a function that threatens to denaturalise and unmask the contempt with which the system holds its law and institutions of justice. If the current instigators of political trials in Ethiopia were to be prosecuted under the same rules they were invoking against their foes and before the same courts they were prosecuting their adversaries, they will be guilty as charged on every single count. Like Tamrat Layne and Siye Abraha before them, the machinery they use will not spare them. Those who dragged before them the likes of Burtukan Midaksa, Eskinder Nega, Bekele Garba, Olbana Lelisa, Andualem Arage, Daniel Bekele, Taye Dida, and the current defendants, will be guilty of the politics for which they are accusing these defendants.

[1] Judith N. Shklar, Legalism: Law, Morals, and Political Trials, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1986) at 146.

[2] Ibid. at 144.

[3] Otto Kirchheimer, Political Justice: Using Legal Procedure for Political Ends, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1961) at 46.

[4] Irving Stone, Clarence Darrow for the Defense, (New York, New American Library, 1969), p.130.

[5] See Michel Foucault, Society Must be Defended, (London, Penguin Books, 2003)  at 134.

[6] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (New York, Meridian, 1958), at 93.


Redefining protest in Ethiopia: what happens to the ‘terror’ narrative when Muslims call for a secular state?


AWOL ALLO and ABADIR M. IBRAHIM 23 October 2012:                                                       Source:

From the periphery, Ethiopian Muslim protesters have recently turned a page in the history of the country. They have proven that demonstrations by religious groups can be peaceful, that secularism can be the aim of these groups instead of their nemesis and that a radical Islamist agenda doesn’t have to be the dominant one.


The early contact between Ethiopia and Islam is romantic. It begins in the days when Islam was a new religion in Arabia and Muslims a persecuted minority. When persecution by their Arab kin became unbearable, early Muslim converts sought and were granted refuge by an ancient Ethiopian-Christian King, an asylum that is depicted spectacularly in Islamic theological history. For centuries to come, when Islamic conquest was expanding in the region and beyond, the Muslim Caliphs returned the favour by not invading the Ethiopian-Christian kingdom in accordance with the prophet’s order to “leave the Ethiopians alone”. After a millennium and a half, the two, conjoined in this unique way, may be on the verge of a monumental turning point in their common history.

While the romanticized relationship would not last. Muslim Caliphates and Emirates later made numerous attempts at invading the Christian Kingdom only to be halted by the latter. The Empire would also begin persecuting, forcefully baptizing and even, at times, massacring its Muslim minority. As late as the 1980s, when they probably constituted the largest demographic block, Ethiopian Muslims were treated as foreigners in their own country. Ironically it was a Marxist Leninist dictatorship, responsible for the end of imperial rule in the country, which finally established religious equality and secularism. Today, four decades later, formal equality still persists. However, the Orthodox Christian community still represents the socio-cultural mainstream; a situation that leads many Muslims to conceive themselves as inhabiting the periphery on the Ethiopian political map and social ethos.

Even though the principles of freedom of religion, equality and secularism have now been entrenched in its constitution, Ethiopia is far from realizing these ideals. Recently, the state media has been accusing ‘elements’ in the Muslim population of conspiring to commit crimes including terrorism and mass violence. At the same time, voices within the Muslim community, mainly through social media and peaceful protest, have been accusing the state of hijacking Muslim organizations nationwide and introducing and forcefully promoting a new sect in the name of fighting Islamic extremism.

Out of this battle a number of fascinating trends are emerging. In most of the Middle East, Muslims have generally tended to advocate for some form of state recognition of religion or even theocracy, but the Ethiopian Muslim movement is pushing for a secular state. For the first time in the country’s history, also, an organized non-violent protest has been launched. Unlike in the past, the most important political initiative is coming not from the centre but from the periphery, from the Muslim population of Ethiopia.

The Majlis: where the trouble started

At the centre of the controversy lies the institution that is supposedly representative of the Muslim population in Ethiopia: the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (popularly known as the “Majlis”). Although there seems to be a popular consensus regarding the need for an institution of its ilk, the institution has a dark political history and a dubious legal basis. The Majlis was established by the Marxist-Leninist military regime in solidarity with the urban Muslim population who supported the revolution that led to the downfall of the Orthodox-Christian imperial regime. Unlike other religious organizations, however, the Majlis was not established by or through law; it was established simply because it was willed by a handful of Muslims and the military elite in the capital, Addis Ababa.

After the fall of the military regime, the Majlis’ legal status changed, though its precarious legal identity remained. Established as a non-profit and non-political body corporate, the Majlis now functions more like an administrative-executive arm of the state that not only professes to represent but also regulate the Muslim community and its faith. Every year, together with the leaders of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Churches, the head of the Majlis makes televised public statements on national holidays. But akin to the executive branch of the state, and unlike the other religious bodies, it has additional extra-legal powers. One of these is its de facto power to veto the registration and licensing of any Islamic/Muslim organizations in the country, which means that a legally registered Muslim non-governmental organization or association can be shut down by the Majlis’ orders. Another significant governmental power arrogated to Majlis’ concerns is its regulatory power over issues of visa and travel to Hajj (Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia). An Ethiopian Muslim going on pilgrimage should get her travel documents and even her air ticket through the Majlis, which charges exorbitant fees and inflated travel costs. Thus, without any legal basis, the organization exercises the power of representation, correspondence, diplomacy and even public administration, and all this in the name of Ethiopian Muslims.

As a de facto organization that is recognized and legitimized by the state, the Majlis has also been able toflout regulatory rules applicable to non-governmental organizations such as licensing, renewal and annual audit reports. The sheer amount of power the Majlis wields is certainly no accident. It exists in a symbiotic relationship with the state whereby it provides control over major mosques, charities and the ‘Muslim voice’. In return, the state provides tenure to its leaders who are taken care of relatively reasonably for occupying formally ‘unpaid’ posts and tolerates the de facto administrative/executive powers that the institution and its leaders have come to enjoy. From the perspective of Muslims, this arrangement is tolerated mainly because the Majlis stands for the idea that Muslims have an organization that represents them on a par with the historically influential Orthodox Christian Church.

Maintaining a delicate balance between right to religion, secularism and political expediency

The Majlis’ operation outside the bounds of the written laws can be partially explained by the precarious type of secularism practiced in the country whereby the state is not explicitly religious but tightly controls religious establishments. This it does without any explicit or implicit authority of the written law. The state’s hegemony over the Majlis, or other religious organizations, has however never gone unchallenged as the community of believers wrestles for and seesaws over control. For most of the last two decades, some mutually tolerable balance was maintained with the right hand always on the side of the state.

This balance was recently disrupted when the state decided essentially to launch a sectarian conflict and weigh in on the side of the underdog that the state had introduced. Prompted by the expansion of Wahabi/Salafi trends in Ethiopia and the neighbouring countries and a spike in inter-religious civil clashes, the state took matters a step farther when it decided to import a new and presumably more peaceful and tolerant Islamic sect from Lebanon under its protection. The followers of the sect, who are primarily Lebanese, are known as the “Ahbash” (trans. “the Ethiopians/Abyssinians”), a reference to its now deceased Ethiopian leader who rose to this rank being exiled to Beirut. Before its state-sponsored introduction, the Ahbash sect did not have more than a dozen or two followers in Ethiopia. Given the capacity of this third world state, struggling to implement even mundane administrative tasks, this was an piece of adventurism destined to fail.

According to the US State Department Terrorism Report, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Federal Affairs launched a nation-wide training in July 2011 to train Imams and Quranic scholars throughout the country. In an article published in Foreign Policy, Mohammed Ademo identifies the trainers as Lebanese Ahbash scholars, confirming the protestor’s claim that the state is undertaking a mass Ahbashization of Ethiopian muslims. The training included both theology and political indoctrination in which mosque leaders and scholars were introduced to Ethiopia’s “revolutionary democracy” as a unique and superior existing system of governance which would guarantee the country’s ‘continued’ political and economic salvation. It looks like the eventual plan was to marginalize or get rid of other sects seen as politically or ideologically hostile to the regime from positions of influence by assigning these scholars as Imams to mosques all over the country.

This was not only a disturbance of the already illegal but delicate balance, but was a clear and escalated violation of the country’s constitution and its international human rights obligations. It was also clumsy in its implementation. The state’s actions including videos of high state officials proclaiming their plot to introduce the new sect flooded the social media. Soon enough, an overwhelming majority of the Muslim population opposed the intervention and rejected the new sect’s doctrines before the latter even reached the market place of ideas. In the end, the fight was not one of theology but of constitutional principle; it was to turn into a genuine struggle by a religious community for a secular state.

Given the history of the nation and the delicate balance in place, the state should have expected that such an overt intervention would not go down well with the majority of Muslims who already think that the state interferes too much in their organization and the public expression of their faith. As the regime begun deploying trained al-Ahbash preachers into mosques and religious schools throughout the country, coercing mosque leaders to cooperate with the new scholars, there emerged a wave of small-scale protests across the country. While the overarching question that animates the life of the protest is the demand for religious freedom, an irreducible political demand lies at its core. Insofar as they are demanding an end to state interference in religious affairs, theirs is a demand for secularism born out of the recognition that the realm of the divine is constitutionally excluded from the dominion of the state. It is a protest against the political use of an institution that supposedly represents and speaks on behalf Muslims but does not really represent them in any meaningful sense of the term.

During a question and answer session in Parliament, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi provided the ideological-political framework for the on-going Ahbash debacle. Zenawi denounced the protest, blaming and dismissing the protesters’ demands as an orchestration of violence by “extremist Salafi elements”. The Prime Minister situated the threat posed by ‘Salafi’ ideology within the broader geopolitics of the region. In that same speech, Zenawi drew connections between Salafi ideological proximity to al-Qaeda, its destabilizing role in neighbouring Somalia, and the broader war on terror. Exaggerating the imminence of the threat presented by the movement, in order to favour the supposed moderates, he pointed to two specific sites in Ethiopia—Bale and Arsi—where he said a Salafi cell has been uncovered.

In a nation where there are no vacancies for fact-checkers, Zenawi knew that no one could call him out on specifics. Whatever the facts, Zenawi’s statements had the effect of establishing a hinge between the protest and al-Qaeda, via the “extremist Salafi elements” deemed responsible for orchestrating the protest. His statements were intended to instil fear, a red hysteria that would, in one and the same move, coerce ordinary Ethiopians into submission and prepare them for an inevitable crackdown. In so doing, the late Prime Minister created the framework for interpreting the demands of Ethiopia’s Muslim community: protest-violence-al-Qaeda. Accordingly, the security forces violently crushed protests and arrested several leaders of the movement on a charge of terrorism.

In the following months, the state media, the sole source of information in a nation of close to 90 million, began to demonize protesters and their leaders, blaming them for violence and accusing them of ‘terrorism’; a ready term for callously labelling opposition groups, local and foreign journalists, and political activists. As usual, the state-owned media in Ethiopia helped to eradicate the very condition of visibility and audibility of bodies and voices that speak from the political periphery.

These voices were deemed threats even before being heard, to the very cohesion of the nation. The media began framing the issues as sectarian, an intra-Muslim conflict. The legitimate political and legal claims of the protestors were twisted, distorted and equated with violence. On the other hand, the violence and direct political involvement of the state was defined as the protection of “law and order”.

Framing violence and the leap towards a new culture of protest

The Ethiopian Television Station (ETV), the only TV station in the nation, plays a crucial role of inexorably mapping events into readily available frameworks of meaning and interpretation, always attentive to the geopolitics of the region, and differentially oriented to local and global audiences. In the context of this movement, this has meant raising the specter of Islamic terrorism in ways that are politically productive both within and outside. Internally, Ethiopian Christians and Muslims must feel threatened by the new development, framed as the rise of Islamic extremism in their country. Ethiopian Muslims must be cautioned about taking part in any protest lest they should face a wrath fitting only to terrorists. Party ideologues and cadres are to take their cues from the media not only to begin identifying terrorists but to begin talking to the Muslim population, calling meetings, and identifying those who need to be cleansed of political/ideological deviation if they are to be brought back to a politically righteous path.

Externally, western powers will ‘recognize’ the magnitude of the danger threatening Ethiopia, so that they will tolerate the transient repression as necessary and proportionate to the threat. Without naming names and explicitly referring to the protesters and their leaders as terrorists, this conjures up an image of the movement and the leaders that exhibits characteristic features of “the war on terror”. This is a tactic that amply prepares the body politic for the ultimate political judgments of the state if the protesters refuse to accept the terms put forth by the state.

Once the stage is set by the media machine, the next step is clear and predictable. Despite the huge turnout and uncompromisingly peaceful expression of their grievances, the media portrayed the protesters, predictably, as violent extremists, and ultimately terrorists. In order for this frame of violence to perform the much anticipated political task, there has to be actual episodes of confrontation where protestors will be conveniently televised throwing stones, breaking windows, and setting public and private property on fire. This, in effect, would allow the state to intervene in the name of law and order, violently crush the protest, arrest activists, and prosecute them under one of a range of grotesque laws.

However, no one really expected what followed. The arrests were made, guns fired, protesters hospitalized, eyes and lungs swollen from tear gas exposure. The protesters however, did not reciprocate in kind. Instead of harnessing them into violence, the media framing of the protest and the violence of the state transformed what was a dispersed and localized micro-protest into an exemplary nation-wide movement. Exemplary because of its innovative mode of resistance, its ability to introduce new genres of protest that did not exist on the Ethiopian political map, because of its impeccable rejection of violence as a means, its ability to anticipate, decipher and detect multiple repressive techniques of the state, and because it established itself as disciplined and peaceful.

In adhering to non-violent modes of protest, they not only disrupted the state’s narrative of violence and terrorism, but also denied the state the very weapon upon which it thrives, that crucial hinge that connects the movement to the discourse of terrorism—violence. By refusing to throw stones at public properties, even when the state made public resources such as city buses available in the vicinity of the protest, the movement established itself as anything but violent. Outwitting alleged agent-provocateurs and coordinating through whatever resources available, they disrupted the image of violence the state and the media were busy painting.

By emphasizing the peaceful nature of their demands, the protesters turned to known signs and symbols of peace during protests. Exposing the media’s anticipation of violence as a trick that power uses to lure its subjects, they not only tried to hold on to the core political contents of their protest but also sought to retrieve what had already been usurped, and demanded a hearing for their voice and visibility for their image. By attending to the mediating power of the media, they resisted, if not sufficiently subverted, the violence into which the regime was luring them, and galvanized solidarity from those supposed to be afraid of their extremist aims, namely, Ethiopian Christians.

The unique and appealing secret of this protest lay in a text that is amenable to different interpretations. This protest may not be as captivating as the confrontation between that lone Chinese student and the tank at the Tiananmen Square, but it captures the mis-en-scene of many forms of contemporary protests that must craft strategies local to their circumstances in order to avoid their cooption and re-appropriation by the state. In demanding their constitutional rights, the protestors affirm that they are not revolutionaries. The protestors’ chant, in Arabic – “the people want to bring down the Ahbash/Majlis” – is taken word for word from that of the Arab Spring, except that the Arab Spring revolutionaries had a far wider mission.

In seeking respect for the principle of secularism, strict separation between Church and the State, they draw on enlightenment rationality. They also employ theological and subversive genres—subversive in the postmodernist sense of the term. They chant ‘Allahu Akbar!! [God is great], they carry the white ribbon, and appropriate non-verbal modes of expression to expose and counter the narrative of the state.. Insofar as terrorism figures as a significant trope in the strategy of the state, the protestor’s strategy aims at ‘disruption’ i.e., disrupting the state’s narrative of violence and terrorism, and therefore denying it the very weapon it needs to justify its own violence against protesters.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel, and some crocodiles too

Having arrested key leaders of the movement, the state held long-awaited elections on 7 October 2012. The protesters continued to vehemently oppose the government’s decision to go forward with the election while representatives of the protest remained in jail. They quickly rejected the outcome of the election as a sham and continued to call on the state to respect the fundamental constitutional premise on the separation of state and religion. In his first address to the Parliament, the new Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn congratulated the Muslim community for conducting what he described as a ‘free and democratic’ election and reiterated his commitment to the policies of his predecessor. In a move reminiscent of Meles Zenawi, Desalegn raised the spectre of terrorism as a scare tactic.

For the first time in the country’s history, a solely non-violent culture of protest seems to be taking shape. But non-violent action is an undertaking that is fraught with risks and its success requires consistency, persistence and a creative genius capable of adapting to different situations thrown against it by its Goliathan protagonist. Independently and/or despite the best efforts of its organizers, the protests can also either run out of steam or turn violent. If the protests turn violent or a section within it resorts to violence, not only would the non-violent movement fail but would also fail in its pioneering identity. In the event that the state turns to violence while all involved remain peaceful, the protest will probably retain its pioneering legacy.

Things are moving quickly and they are moving from bad to worse. On 20 October 2012, the state media reported the death of two protestors and a policeman in the northern part of the country. While the protestors have fully embraced a peaceful and non-violent means of expressing their grievances, violence seems to be the inevitable expression of law and order on the Ethiopian political landscape. Unless both the state and the protesters act with the maximum possible restraint and diligence in the lead up to the forthcoming Muslim holiday of Hajj, things might spiral out of control. Tension is already running high. In a country where protest is de facto criminalized, the holiday is an event of a very high political significance. It will be used as an opportunity for the protestors to demonstrate that the October 7 election was indeed a sham, fraudulent and staged exercise by the state. Equally, the government wants to repress and contain any rupture that might escape its control. The protestors have already given a yellow card to the government. If the standoff continues to drag on, there is the risk of political outsiders who have nothing to lose and everything to gain from the escalation of the confrontation. In the end, if the protesters succeed in retaining what is so unique about this protest, they will have set an exemplary precedent in the nation’s history of protest and political activism, irrespective of its material outcome.

Against ‘Jupiterian’ History: A Foucauldian Problematization of the Mourning of the Late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

                                                                                                                                Awol K. Allo

                  University of Glasgow Law School

A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past-which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour — and that day is Judgment Day.

—Walter Benjamin, Thesis on the Philosophy of History, Illuminations.

Nothing compels human reflection more than the fear and grief of death. Death is the penultimate expression of human precarity. Even in this most apolitical of moments, politics does not cease its abysmal usurpation and appropriation of history. The spectacular display of public mourning that followed the death of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and its representation offers an opportunity for thinking about the political work of mourning in authoritarian systems. What does the public representation of the life of Meles Zenawi tells us about the political use made of grief? Does it perpetuate or arrest prevailing relationships of domination and oppression between Ethiopia’s disgruntled ethnic groups? Given normative conceptions of death and mourning; and their public representation across cultures, how do public obituaries, sometimes inadvertently, dehistoricize the past and affirm existing configurations of power? Judith Butler’s ‘Precarious Life’ contains an exquisite passage: “If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry of war.” What do the eulogies delivered at Meles’s funeral conceal and/or reveal about the man at the centre of Ethiopia’s political theatre for the last two decades? Most importantly, what role does it play in terms of generating truth and producing domains of knowledge that sustains, consolidates or displaces the political practices of the present?

In the 1975-76 Lectures at the College de France, Foucault cites a certain Petrarch, who asked a question Foucault describes as “astonishing or at least fundamental”: “Is there nothing more to history than the praise of Rome?” (Foucault,2003, 74). Petrarch’s question is exceptionally emblematic of the political use made of Zenawi’s state-funeral both by Ethiopia and global powers with vested interest in the region. I want to reformulate Petrarch and ask, is there nothing more to Ethiopia’s history of the last two decades other than the glory of Meles Zenawi? My purpose here is to identify what is specifically ‘Jupetarian’ about the historicization, and memorialization of Roman history, and reconstruct a non-roman account of Meles’s legacy. I am interested in providing an account of the past that seeks to emancipate itself from the dazzling light of power and sovereignty. Not the history of the mighty kings who founded Empires and sovereign power, but the emaciated history of the unspeakable and the invisible that contests the erasure of his past from sites away from the center of power, from the political periphery he is condemned to. As Walter Benjamin says, if there is something politically ‘redemptive’ about the iterability of the past “in all its moments”, we must account for the technologies of appropriation by which historical discourse conceals, misrecognizes, misrepresents, dehistoricizes, and eventually erases the fundamental relationship of ethnic domination to affirm the current configurations of force relations within the social body. We must find ways of amplifying the voice and subjugated stories of the marginalized, the excluded and the bare-life. Working through Foucault’s account of historico-political critique generally and the discourse of counter-history outlined in the 1975 Lectures specifically, I will try to find a register for the history of ‘power’s lower depths’ whose primary purpose is to ‘unmask Rome as a new Babylon”, and contest the usurpation of the ‘rights of Jerusalem’. In offering a genealogical critique of the political appropriation of mourning and grief, I will turn to the narrative of the Ethiopian state and the eulogies of foreign dignitaries generally and one delivered by the representative of the United States, Ambassador Susan Rice. Emphasis on the latter only because of its eventalizing force!


The Meles Zenawi that Ruled Ethiopia

                                 In the work of mourning, it is not grief that works: grief keeps watch.

              Maurice Blanchot



As a longtime leader of a diverse and complex nation, Zenawi has friends and foes. For his friends, he is an enlightened statesman, an irreplaceable leader who gave the nation a new beginning and whose deeds, without any distinction, must be transformed into heroic acts and engraved in monuments, to be remembered and ‘made present forever’. For his detractors, Zenawi is a tyrant, a totalitarian leader who brutally pacified, normalized and silenced his people: “the man who tried to make dictatorship acceptable.” If there is anything that unites these mutually exclusive views, it is that shrewd and fierce intelligence in Zenawi that many cannot help but admire. Use whatever fancy or derogatory word you like but no one can reasonably deny Meles had steel. Something about him compels admiration. For many observers, he was a complex figure that embodies the traits of a brutal dictator and a politico-economic genius, both unified in one.

Meles was a complex figure. In international forums, it is his reformist, diplomatic and technocratic profile that dazzles leaders and captures the gaze of the Western media. Internally, however, in the eyes of his own people, Zenawi has a much more complex, contested and contingent credential. For most Ethiopians, Zenawi is anything but a democrat.

Meles now belongs to the archives. But archives are pivotal. In them, we see the random elements and the minute details of our identity as peoples and nations, the battles, struggles and confrontations out of which we were born as a body politic. They tell us where we came from, where we are today, and how we got to where we are. They inform the future in multiple profound ways. As a figure whose fingerprint appears on every single major events of foundational significance, on questions that matter the most to Ethiopians and the people of the region, Zenawi is a giant in that archive. To speak about archives is not to speak about the past. In fact, at stake in every recounting of the past is not the past as such; it is the present and the future. We are talking about a past that is not yet past, the past that is still present in a very material sense and will continue to be present in the future. It was T. S. Eliot who famously said: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from” (T.S. Eliot, 1943, 38). The work of memory is not about things that are done and therefore cannot be undone. It is about the present and the future.

In Meditation XVII, the English poet John Donne reminds us: “No man is an island, entire of itself; is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” Whatever our judgment on his politics and the legacy he lives behind, his death diminishes all those who belong to the category of the human. However, there is something deeply unsettling about the politics at the core of his mourning. In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot usefully suggested: “The disaster, unexperienced. It is what escapes the very possibility of experience—it is the limit of writing [limite de ľécriture]”. This is precisely what transpired during state funeral for Meles Zenawi. The state sought to represent an aporia profoundly resistant to representation in ways politically productive to the existing regime. In so doing, it undercut the authenticity of the traumatic event. Instead of being an ethical reflection on the memory of the deceased, the funeral is productively choreographed and structured in a way that allows the system to make use of the moment, to appropriate grief, and make political capital out of the memory of the dead. It glorifies Meles Zenawi and in turn appropriates his glory to shape and guarantee the political value of a post Meles Ethiopia. In the process of glorifying the past, it subjugates, conceals and misappropriates the agony of those condemned to the periphery by the system he inaugurated and led.

For the full article, click here for the link to the Glasgow Legal Theory Working Paper Series.